A Valentine for Imperfect Couples

Posted on February 13, 2011


For those of us who grew up with fairy tales, and later with the movies and television, it might be natural to assume that romance is supposed to lead to happily-ever-after. We take it for granted that destiny holds our perfect match in its hands, and while the prize may be slow to arrive, eventually our soul mate will appear.

This belief may explain Valentine’s Day cards. Most address someone called “Honey” or “Darling” or “Sweetheart,” and are filled with hearts and flowers and gooey, gloppy poems offering exaggerated claims of pure and endless joy. I guess these cards were created for people who have somehow hooked up with that soul mate promised by the fairy tales.

For many, though, such thoughts may lead to sadness, disappointment, or a sense of hollow longing. Most couples are not soul mates. They aren’t even kindred spirits. Theirs was not a love made in heaven, shaped by the angels, or sealed by fate. In fact, some are barely hanging on.

What does the fantasy look like? It looks like bliss. Fuzzy, golden, glowing bliss. The words are always the right ones. Often words are unnecessary, because these two people are precisely tuned to each other’s thoughts. When they walk down the street, other couples stop and stare in envy at such effortless and unparalleled closeness and harmony. For these chosen few, every challenge becomes a triumph, every turn an adventure.

We carry so many illusions with us as we grow. Occasionally we trade one of the illusions for experience, and once in a while, a bit of wisdom. The difference between fantasy and reality is life itself, those thousands of tiny, insignificant events we’re involved with every day. Some of those events are unpleasant. A few are overwhelming. And the fact is, words are necessary, and very often we use the wrong ones. Sometimes we behave badly. But before you start comparing yourself to the unforgettable movie endings, remember that it took fifty tries to get those scenes right. And they’re not even real.

There’s value in working at a relationship. Not that we always appreciate that fact. Sometimes we’d give anything for a little closeness and harmony, especially the effortless and unparalleled kind. We wish for instant and perfect communication. Even pretty good communication would be a welcome change.

The truth is, many of the couples I know have been heading upstream almost since the day they met. They’re in the same canoe, but are frequently paddling in opposite directions. They don’t think the same, or remember things the same, or behave the same. They argue, often with great ferocity. And sometimes they break down completely and have to paddle over to the shore and get out before they drown each other.

If yours is not a love made in heaven, you’re not alone. Most relationships have to be forged right here on earth. You work at it every day, hammering, welding, bending back the corners. You get snagged on the rough edges, and sometimes you’re left cut and bleeding. But somewhere deep inside, you know what you’re creating is a work of art. And every once in a while, usually just in time, you catch a glimpse of it. Patched together, worn, scraped, and full of gaping holes, the result is an odd and beautiful thing. There are sections of it that are polished and shiny and dazzling. And there are more of those places with each passing year. You made them, together, with no help from angels or fate.

So when you see a perfect couple, seeming to glide through life without struggle or heartache, realize that you’re probably watching an illusion. Stop and stare for a moment, then get back to reality. That work of art you have there isn’t quite finished yet.

And in the unlikely event that you happen to be one of those perfect couples, congratulations. Enjoy your prize, and all of those honey-darling-sweetheart valentines.

But this one is for the rest of us.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

P.S.  If you’re alone, or even just feeling alone, I hope you never stop believing
that the future has love waiting for you.